— Cultural Sources of Newness

Decidedly, dinners trigger the new

When I took a picture of the guests at the opening dinner for the “Culture Around” conference speakers and special representatives from the world of the arts tonight in Warsaw, Justyna, one of the organizers,  said “I know what you are going to do with them! I have read your blog!” Actually, I was just capturing the mood, but then I realized that she was right: this evening offered an opportunity to get back to collecting my thoughts during and after an interesting moment and sharing them in another post. And I recognized that decidedly, dinners trigger the new.


The first artistic intervention I studied started over a dinner in Paris when a manager was placed next to an artist and after a while they discovered that they could learn from each other. Their conversation blossomed into a 2.5 year program with 4 residencies. Tonight’s dinner may well spawn projects that could last a while as well.

The conversations were lively among the guests around me from Sweden, Belgium, Poland, Moldova, Georgia, Portugal… They come from culture ministries, museums, orchestras, European agencies, film companies… and they have diverse professional backgrounds. What struck me is how often it emerged during the conversations that people come from outside their current professional context: their “otherness” is a strength their organizations need. Just before leaving the hotel for dinner I had been listening to a BBC radio program with the scholars Peter Hall and Doreen Massey talking about the conditions that favor creativity: diversity and face-to-face interactions. It felt like the goals of tomorrow’s conference have already been achieved, maybe I don’t need to go there in the morning?

But I will go and speak, because the interest in artistic interventions is high in all these countries that so my research can add value for the ca 200 participants expected tomorrow. Some of the guests tonight talked about their attempts to initiate such a new kind of activity connecting the arts and business in their cultural contexts. One was delighted when she spoke about how management in a company wanted to open itself to learning with artists; another was frustrated about how difficult it is to get artists to want to engage with the business world that they despise in her country. We talked about the cultural embeddedness of responses to the idea of artistic interventions, and about traditions of public vs private funding for the arts. (I am glad I am organizing an Artful Research conversation on this subject in December at the WZB, the need to address this topic is clearly there!)


Other elements that struck me over dinner (I only had the tiny menu card on which to jot some notes), were the value of learning from failures and crises—which are so difficult for us researchers to gain access to. A participant associated with an orchestra described how her organization returned after almost dissolving itself. Giving presentations to others has helped her identify the key factors that enabled the orchestra to start a successful renewal process:

  • luck;
  • we had nothing to lose;
  • inspirational leadership—the new leader told the musicians that they had talents that were not yet being used in the right way;
  • the recruitment of an outsider who asked different questions and made surprising suggestions; and
  • yes, money matters too: the discovery of private investors who helped renovate a concert hall for them.

Tonight provided evidence yet again for the fact that such conferences stimulate people to reflect on their experiences and share their thoughts with others. Two dinner guests from different countries who were sitting near me talked about a conference they had both attended in the US, at which a particularly inspiring woman (in her 80s) had spoken about fundraising for the arts. They both remembered one of her key statements: If you want funding, “just ask!”

The speech had so affected one of the guests that she went home and drew up a simple, powerful flowchart for herself: 1) cultivate potential donors (= get to know them, find out what they are passionate about, explain what you are passionate about); 2) prepare your presentation; 3) just ask! 4) stewardship (= tell them what you can offer them); 5) accountability (including “thank you”). Luck again played a role for her at that conference: it was held in New York in the period the Icelandic volcano interrupted air traffic. There was plenty of time for those who made it (5 from Europe) to ask questions and dig deep into the experience of the experts.

This speaker went back to her country, where there is no tradition of individual philanthropy, and tried doing “something very American”—a fundraising dinner at 1000 euros per plate. She still does not believe it is possible to introduce that practice into her culture, although she succeeded in raising 600.000 euros from the guests at her dinner. My guess is that her story may stimulate other Europeans around her tonight to go and try something countercultural in their countries too. Not because American practices are the best, but because she provided evidence that trying out something different and “just asking” might lead to something worth working with.

Last week at the WZB we presented our research on Cultural Sources of Newness, and one of the external experts challenged us about our approach to the concept of newness, which we say is something that is actually only evident after the fact. Tonight, the guests’ stories illustrated that organizational learning is similarly only evident after the fact: in the throes of dealing with problems, crises, and even successes, it is not easy to discern what progress has been made. And, dinners are safer places than conferences to admit to failures and to discover what we can learn from them. So we need conferences in order to have conference dinners–and yes, I will still go to the conference tomorrow and share what I prepared before meeting these inspiring and warm people who keep on trying to make new things possible, often against all odds.


Other glimpses I had of Warsaw before and after the dinner: